She was the gifted, fearless wild child featured in “Born to Run.” Fourteen years later, Shelton still leads a “crazy life,” following her passion in pursuit of the next endurance challenge.
By Henry Howard
Jenn Shelton became well known for her appearance in Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book about ultra running, “Born to Run.” In the years since the book was published, Shelton has matured but still embraces a Bohemian lifestyle as evidenced in the new documentary, “Outside Voices.”
At the end of the documentary, Shelton is in her small van under a moonlight sky. She’s on her cell phone, learning Italian. It concludes, with her repeating a translation, “You do not know who I am.”
So who is Jenn Shelton?
In his book about endurance runners, McDougall describes then 19-year-old Shelton as a “beautiful and fearless wild child who happens to be a gifted endurance athlete.” Shelton also is passionate, adventurous, genuine, kind, friendly and private.
And she has clearly moved on from her experience in “Born to Run.”
“It was a trip I went on when I was 19 and I’m 33 now,” she says. “It’s not part of my daily experience. I’m in ‘Born to Run’ and sometimes it gets me a free beer at the bar. I know a lot of people who were in the book and on the trip, it’s part of their identity. And that’s cool and all. But for me it’s just something I did when I did was I was 19. I don’t really have that much of an identity with it.”
How similar is 33-year-old Jenn to 19-year-old Jenn?
“I think as far removed as everyone else is — pretty far removed,” she says, breaking out in her contagious laugh. “When the book came out, I was like, ‘Whoa, you guys, I’m not that crazy,’ And all my friends were like, ‘Yeah you are. We think the book downplayed you.’ OK, I’ll give you that.”
Shelton has never really analyzed herself but she takes pride in her commitment to her sports of choice.
“I’m a super-hard worker. I have this reputation in the outdoor industry to be a talent who parties,” she says. “But everyone who trains with me and who is my friend would call me a workhorse. But if I go to the races, people would say, ‘Oh, if I had your talent. You never train.’ Jesus Christ. I train 12 hours a day. That’s why I feel so far removed from this character because that’s not me. I’m pretty crazy and even was crazy back when I was 19. But who wasn’t?”
‘I’m not the best planner’
Shelton now spends her winters in Italy where she is training to become even better at ski mountaineering. Maybe she’ll try to make the Olympic team in 2022 if ski mountaineering becomes a sport. Then again, maybe not.
“It’s a cool way to move and go human power through the mountains in the winter,” she says after a long day in the mountains. “For now, I am dedicating my winters to exploring that sport.”
An Olympic qualifying time is already on her impressive resume.
“I just wanted to run the Olympic Trials Standard,” she says of her marathon PR of 2:45:01 at the California International Marathon. “I don’t have a desire to run faster because of the work that takes. I don’t have that passion. I have my marathon and goal and I’m pretty satisfied with that.”
For someone who doesn’t have a plan five weeks from now, the Olympics five years from now are barely a blip on the radar. After she returns to her North American home (her small van), her options are open. And she would have it no other way. “What I love about (endurance sports) is that you don’t have to paint yourself into a corner or a box, at least with the route I have taken with it,” Shelton says.
“You can choose to explore the outdoors. You can choose to explore the limits of endurance. You can always evolve and learn. Maybe you are running in a new culture. Maybe you are learning what it’s like to run without sleep for 72 hours. In some sports like football, you can become an expert on how it works. But once I have mastered something, I tend to move on and try something new so it stays really exciting for me.”
Even as she embraces her love of ski mountaineering, running still pays the bills.
“I haven’t really planned my summer yet,” Shelton says, almost boastfully. “I’m running a 50k in the British Virgin Islands at the end of April as a way to get my flight paid home from Europe. I think that’s all I have on the schedule. I’m looking to go to Alaska and do some expeditions around the ridges. Go for some fastest known times.
“I’m not the best planner.”
Where the sky is truly the limit
Once she’s home, the sky’s the limit.
“It’s kind of a cop-out but I don’t really have a typical week,” Shelton says. “I live in my van. I don’t know — I’ve done it all. So I’ll check in with my body and my passion and see what I want to do for the next few months. And then commit to that — whatever it is – full bore. It could be a marathon. It could be a 200-mile thing. It could be a 50-miler. They’re all so different.”
This year could also represent a return to competition. “Last year was difficult because I had a broken back,” she says. “When I got home from Italy I did a little bit of guiding and then I headed up to the Yukon for 10 days of silent meditation. I couldn’t train. I couldn’t walk. So I trained my mind. I was there so I shot over to Alaska. That was cool because I could run uphill but I couldn’t run downhill — 3,000 feet up and 3,000 feet down. You know those wheelie shoes, with the wheels? That’s how I got down the mountain, on the backs of my heels — (makes whirling sound).”
Then she followed her intuition and spent some time in Mt. Hood, Oregon. “See why it’s not typical?”
Shelton still has to do a lot of physio for her back, lots of swimming to build strength. “It’s for recovery but I have to keep on top of it,” she says. “It’s good because it makes other things really strong too. It’s your back, so you don’t f— around with your back.”
Introducing the ‘Jenn Show’
It’s difficult for hard-core athletes like Shelton to surrender themselves to physical therapy and limited activity. Even tougher for most private people is to open up for the world to see.
“That actually was not very difficult,” she says of getting the courage to do a documentary.
“My friend Anton Krupicka told me about this cinematographer. He said he’s a good guy and considers him a good friend. And Tony doesn’t consider many people good friends so I thought, ’Oh, this must be fine.’ It’s a fine line. We call it the ‘Jenn Show’ a little bit. You have to have some publicity. I need to pick and choose. I thought a documentary would be cool. I wouldn’t do it again but it happened, so …”
There was no plan, no plot, no storyboard. Just a guy and a camera following Shelton around for a few weeks. “I didn’t really learn anything other than I don’t like a camera in my face,” she says.
The black and white documentary is as disjointed as Shelton may seem to some — jumping from her running in the mountains to helping out at an aid station to riffing about her lack of skills.
It’s unfocused yet vibrant. Just like Shelton.
In the 2015 documentary, she recounts a time when she went back country skiing, running and night skiing all in the same day, then scarfed down $20 worth of Taco Bell food. Then threw up on the kitchen floor in front of her then-boyfriend. “I guess we’re not going to be together that much longer,” she reflects in the documentary.
Viewers can also see some of her craziness when she gleefully plays a game that involves repetitions of sprinting, chugging beer and shooting a beer can off a fence.
The documentary does include scenes of Shelton doing what she does best, running. At one point, while competing in the Bear 100, self-deprecating Shelton refers to herself as an “androgynous stripper in a baseball cap.”
All joke aside, Shelton — paced by her friend, Krupicka — finished the Bear in 24:27:13, third overall female.
The craziness of life
As atypical as her life is, perhaps it is a life many endurance athletes seek and many weekend warriors silently covet. Many of us secretly want to shove aside responsibilities, leave home-work stress behind and be completely free. We want to choose our own path to explore. To discover. To live.
But when reality kicks back in for us, it’s just a daydream. For Shelton, it’s reality. “I know I’m living a crazy life, but it’s my life,” she says. “It’s not crazy to me. I wake up every day and brush my teeth, just like everyone else, you know?”
So did her ultra endurance lifestyle shape Shelton? Or is just who she is?
“I was age 18 when I got into this,” she recalls. “Sure, I could have made the choice to go to college and be a doctor or something. Or have a stable existence. But I started down the path of just kind of doing and making things work. It just hasn’t really stopped. I have trouble sometimes with the perception of people — ‘If I got paid, I would do this to.’ But I go years without getting paid. Sometimes it’s really good, and sometimes it’s just not. I guess it is who I am.
“One day I would like to settle down,” she says, quickly adding, “but not any time soon.”
Hometown: America, My van. Winter: Badia, Italy
Number of years running: 20
How many miles a week do you typically run: idk
Point of pride: I’m making it happen, somehow, all these years, I keep finding a way.
Favorite race distance: all
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: depends on the locale
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Taylor Swift is my queen. as is Miranda Lambert. What can I say? I have never been accused of being high brow.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: if you were conscious that is to say totally present in the now all negativity would dissolve instantly it could not survive in your presence
Where can other runners follow you: Twitter: @sheltonjenn